“I was simmering, simmering, and Emerson set me to a boil,” Walt Whitman once wrote. The two very different men, one known as the Sage of Concord and one described by a contemporary as “Bacchus-browed,” shared an unlikely affinity. They exchanged letters in the 1850s, during a time when the nation’s literature first developed its own distinctly American voice.
“The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time.... I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low,” Ralph Waldo Emerson exhorted aspiring poets. “The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body;--show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature.”
Emerson was the son of a Unitarian clergyman and had been trained at the Harvard Divinity School. His doubts led him to resign from the ministry after only three years, and he went in search of a more direct, personal experience of divinity. He continued to lecture and write essays, and by 1855 was renowned for his oratory and his doctrine of nonconformist self-reliance. “He was a preacher whose message was ‘Don’t listen to preachers,’” writes Louis Menand in The Metaphysical Club.
In “The American Scholar,” a lecture which he delivered to the Harvard Divinity College in 1837, Emerson pronounced, “The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” He shocked the clergy by insisting that each person should rely on experience and intuition rather than logic. Emerson would not be asked to give another lecture at Harvard for thirty years.
At the time of the infamous lecture, the United States had only existed for sixty-one years and its literary culture depended greatly on European traditions. The lecture was “America’s declaration of cultural independence,” Oliver Wendell Holmes said later. He commented, “Emerson set me on fire.”
Emerson was at the center of the Transcendentalist circle, an informal club of New England writers and philosophers who shared a belief in the unity of the cosmos and an idealistic view of humankind. They valued insight and experience over logic and rationalism, combining Platonism and Romanticism with Indian and Chinese mysticism. The movement affirmed free will and advocated a national culture that would draw from native elements. “There was a new consciousness,” Emerson later wrote.
“We want a national literature altogether shaggy and unshorn, that shall shake the earth, like a herd of buffaloes thundering over the prairies!” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow proclaims in his 1849 Kavanagh.
In a collection of twelve untitled poems and a preface, Whitman set out to fulfill this vision and sing America, praising democracy and embracing universal brotherhood. In Song of Myself, he introduces himself as “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual.”
Whitman, who was a schoolteacher and journalist by trade, sold his house for the funds to publish the volume. He did not put his name on Leaves of Grass, nor did he list any publisher: only a daguerreotype of himself, rakishly dressed, appeared on the cover. Bronson Alcott, who accompanied Henry David Thoreau at his first meeting with the young poet, described him as “broad-shouldered, rougefleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr.”
Leaves of Grass shocked many readers with its forthright treatment of the business of life and its disregard for traditional versification. Whereas most poets of the day wrote in rhyme and meter, counting syllables and stresses, Whitman followed the nonmetrical cadences of speech. His oratorical style draws on the rhythms of the Bible, making use of parallelism and anaphora, layering wave upon wave of enumeration. He casts his lines far, extending them past conventional lengths--the first poet to write such “free verse.” Life Illustrated said at the time that Whitman’s poems were “lines of rhythmical prose, or a series of utterances (we know not what else to call them).”
John Greenleaf Whittier was offended by the frankness of Leaves of Grass and burned his copy; and the New York Daily Tribune published a scathing review. “His language is too frequently reckless and indecent . . . . His words . . . are quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society, and will justly prevent his volume from free circulation in scrupulous circles,” the critic commented, although admitting “the essential spirit of poetry beneath an uncouth and grotesque embodiment.”
But to Emerson, the country had “listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” and he commended Whitman’s experiments.
“I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of LEAVES OF GRASS. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed,” he wrote the young poet. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson’s was one of the few favorable reactions Whitman received--and Whitman printed this endorsement, without his permission, in gold lettering along the spine of his next edition. He printed Emerson’s entire letter, also without his foreknowledge, in an appendix. It is accompanied by Whitman’s own open letter to Emerson, his “dear Friend and Master.”
But Whitman’s exploitation infuriated Emerson, and he commented that it was a “strange, rude thing” Whitman had done. The rift would never be entirely repaired between them.
Whitman continually revised his catalog of America, Leaves of Grass, and saw it reissued nine times. In Song of Myself, he writes,
- I speak the pass-word primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
- By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
- Through me many long dumb voices,
- Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves. . . .
Leaves of Grass was precisely the vast gesture of inclusion Emerson sought. Eleven years earlier, he had called for such a poet as Whitman--one whose verses could contain the young and sprawling nation. “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials,” Emerson wrote in 1844. “Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for meters.”